What is driving Ethiopia’sethnic conflicts?Semir YusufThe rise in violent ethnic conflict in Ethiopia in recent years can largely be linked to thesharp increase in militant ethnic nationalism against a backdrop of state and party fragility.Decades of exclusivist political arrangements have contributed to a steady rise in ethnicconsciousness, with the state and ruling party becoming increasingly incoherent. This hasincreased ethnic disagreement. High-level negotiations aided by nationwide and inclusivedialogue could help stabilise the country.EAST AFRICA REPORT 28 NOVEMBER 2019
Key findings ontending ethnic mobilisation and theCincoherence of the state and ruling party havecontributed to the rise in ethnic-based violencein Ethiopia, especially since 2018. thnic mobilisation has persisted in the countryEfor at least five decades, either excluded ornurtured by successive political systems.Especially since 1991, the empowering anddisempowering effects of, and the simmeringtensions within, the centralised ethno federalsystem continued unabated until unbridledethnic movements finally engulfed state andparty institutions, rendering them weak andincoherent. Fragile institutions facilitated therise of violent communal contentions. he state has suffered in three ways as a resultTof protest movements. Its institutions havebeen weakened by protesting mobs, fracturingcommand and control within key sectors. Rulesgoverning the relationship between federaland regional states have become open torenegotiation. Finally, the line between upholdingrule of law and order, and sliding back toauthoritarianism, has not been clearly defined. he ruling party in turn became dividedTalong its ethnic components. Ideological andmethodological differences, as well as thosestemming from contrasting constituencies, havemade collaborative efforts to restore peace in thecountry a formidable challenge.RecommendationsI nternal negotiations within the ruling party, theEthiopian People’s Revolutionary DemocraticFront, should aim to bring order into andamong each constituent party. Inter-partynegotiations should be candid and thorough,and based on the principle of reciprocity. Thenegotiations must include a concrete plan tosecure peace in each region, with cascadingpositive effects in the country as a whole.Inclusive national dialogue should take placeto find ways to reconstitute the state tomeet the reasonable demands of majorpolitical groups.The state should reinvent itself by ensuringits security structures can take action, butwith due consideration to professionalismand the basic principles of human rights.Templates for doing so should be developedat different levels.2WHAT IS DRIVING ETHIOPIA’S ETHNIC CONFLICTS? he government should work on fixingTthe ailing economy. The focus must be onimmediate job creation for the youth. ivil society organisations need to inject nonCethnic and cross-cutting agendas that bringtogether diverse groups of people to achievecollective goals. They should also coordinatetheir activities for maximum effect. he international community should stepTup its financial and technical support for thegovernment. Technical support includingconsultation and training in the areas ofestablishing law and order, and the preventionand resolution of conflicts, should beescalated and diversified.
IntroductionEthiopia’s political liberalisation, underway since April2018, gave hope to many that the country was movingtowards a better future than its autocratic past.1 Thiseuphoria was however dimmed with the parallel rise ofviolent ethnic conflicts across the country.Although generally subsiding now,2 these conflicts haverocked different parts of Ethiopia. Well over a thousandpeople have died,3 with close to three million displaced.Ethiopia had the highest number of internally displacedpeople in the world in 2018.4This report tackles the problem of violence incontemporary Ethiopia.5 It explains it based on insightsfrom the literature on ethnic conflicts and field workcarried out for that purpose. It argues that the recentupswing in ethnic violence is mainly due to a sharp risein contending ethno-nationalisms6 in the context ofperceived party and state fragility, i.e., incoherenceand brittleness.The two factors create a self-reinforcing cycle. Withthe playing out of more contending nationalisms,institutional fragility worsens. And as institutions becomefragile, nationalist mobilisation intensifies and becomesmore conflictual.Paradoxically, ethnic federalism bothempowered and disempoweredethnic groups in EthiopiaThe role of elites is factored in the analysis within thecontext of institutional/ ideological dynamics.Ethiopia’s economic downturn has also complicated thescene by driving ethnic-based grievances and generatingopportunistic conflict.The analysis provided in this report is confined to themajor underlying factors that are common to mostconflicts. Institutional, ideological and psychologicalfactors are stressed more than others. It should be notedhowever, that each conflict case could have its ownpeculiar qualities not necessarily captured by the modelpresented here.This report urges policymakers and social forces tochange the institutional and nationalist context that isreinforcing and reproducing this conflict. Among otherthings, the ruling party needs to renegotiate its plansin ways that make influential members willing to worktogether towards the goal of transforming the country intoa stable democracy. It should reactivate state power andrestore law and order in the country.At the same time, nationalist forces should reorient theirpriorities and negotiate ways to accommodate all nationaland ethnic interests. In the process they should help tonedown antagonistic nationalist rhetoric.It is important to note that this analysis should notlead one to assume that Ethiopia has descended or isdescending into chaos. Despite widespread violence,many people still lead ordinary lives, not necessarilydirectly affected by the recent conflicts. The conflictcentred analysis offered here does not imply that thecountry is heading towards disaster. The report aims toaddress the root causes of actual and potential conflictsin the country, without assuming that the trend willnecessarily continue unabated or that it will engulf theentire country.Institutional legacy andcontending nationalismsContending nationalisms are partly byproducts ofinstitutional legacy. Institutional arrangements put inplace during the imperial era produced reactive ethnonationalist movements.7 Attempts at nation buildingthrough educational, religious, political and militaryinstitutions were perceived as schemes of ‘nationdestroying’8 by some non-Amharic-speaking elites.These elites, inspired by worldwide decolonisation andMarxist-Leninist movements, drove a strong countermovement that was ethno-nationalist in form andcontent.9 The ethno-nationalist struggles turned into allout war with the Marxist-Leninist and Ethiopian nationalistregime of the Dergue (1974–1991). The ethno-nationalistswon the war, and came into power in 1991.One of the victors, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front(TPLF), set out to redress the past ethnic subjugationby remapping Ethiopia along ethnic lines. Ethnicfederalism was put in place as a remedy to Ethiopia’sethnic problem.However the federation was beset with ironies. On theone hand it gave legislative, executive and judicial powersEAST AFRICA REPORT 28 NOVEMBER 20193
to the regions, and put local elites in place to rule them.This led to a sense of empowerment among somemarginalised groups.10 However that same systemwas tightly controlled by the ruling party, through itshierarchical party structure.This institutional arrangement led to two adverseoutcomes. First, it created the feeling that Ethiopia’smarginalised communities were still under a rulingclique that hailed from one ethnic group.11 It alsocreated a sharp division between ‘natives’ (and thus‘owners’ of regions) and ‘settlers’.12 Hence, ethnicfederalism both empowered and disempoweredEthiopia’s ethnic groups.From 2015, simmering populargrievances scaled up into a seriesof ethnic-based movementsSuch a paradoxically implemented federal systemalso contributed to the proliferation of nationalismsof various sorts. Ethnic nationalists mobilised theirconstituencies both within and outside the frameworkestablished by the regime. They used the ethnicallycharged environment and federal structure to nurtureethnic sentiments.At the same time they capitalised on the centralisedand authoritarian tendencies of the regime to inflameethnic-based anti-regime mobilisation. On theirpart, Ethiopian nationalists also galvanised theirconstituencies against the ruling Ethiopian People’sRevolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which theysaw as anti-Ethiopian.13Nationalist grievances and mobilisation continued tosimmer during the EPRDF’s era, resulting in multiplelines of conflict. The first line pitted opposition groupsagainst the regime. Anti-regime struggles includedthe insurgency waged by rebel groups such as theOromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden NationalLiberation Front.Although they were too weak to directly effectmajor changes to the order of politics set up by thegovernment, they managed to inflame nationalistsentiments among their respective constituencies.4WHAT IS DRIVING ETHIOPIA’S ETHNIC CONFLICTS?Second, there persisted violent conflicts between variousethnic groups over a wide range of issues.14 Theseincluded differences over killil (region or federal unit) bordersand grazing lands, as well as power struggles amongcommunal groups to control regions. The conflicts wereboth causes and effects of the escalation of contendingethnic mobilisation.Finally, debates continued between ethnic and Ethiopiannationalists on such fundamental issues as the history,identity and future destiny of the country.Above the cacophony of ethnic and anti-regime agitationsprevailed a semblance of order and overall stability.15Violent inter-ethnic conflicts erupted occasionally over 27years, but they were usually brought under control andseemed relatively low in intensity. The ideology and policiesof the party reigned supreme, and when digressionsoccurred, coercive tactics kept a facade of stability.That started changing in 2015. Nationalist mobilisationspeaked as anti-regime social movements increasedtheir agitation. Protests rocked Ethiopian cities andtowns. Long-simmering popular grievances overadministrative, political and economic problems scaledup into a series of ethnic-based movements, especiallywhen organisational challenges were overcome (looselynetworked cells mushroomed nationwide) and politicalopportunities arose.16Growing urbanisation and cyber technology contributedto the organisation of protests. Contradictions inthe EPRDF intensified as elements in some of itsconstituent units challenged the hegemony of the TPLFand set out to decide their fate independently, or withthe social movements.In the process, the TPLF lost its control over theinstitutional levers of the EPRDF. The process gave a clearvictory to the reformists, ushering in a series of politicalliberalisation measures.Political liberalisation opened doors for suppressedethnic-based agitations and contentions. Conflict nowraged unbridled in all corners of the country.17 Thus manyof Ethiopia’s contemporary conflicts have roots in recenthistory and involve ethno-nationalist mobilisations. They areescalated by the advent of new actors, intensified use ofcyber technology, and quite importantly, the reconfigurationof institutional arrangements in the political system.
Weakening state and party structuresThe rising nationalist movements weakened state structures, even triggeringa split within the ruling party. They therefore complicated state enforcement oflaw and order in Ethiopia.18State institutionsState institutions have suffered from four distinct problems. First, they lostautonomy and agility in many areas. Mob networks either engulfed themor put them under heavy influence. Chains of command and control brokedown in administrative and security branches in many areas, such as Oromiaand Amhara.19Second, the 27-year-old pact between the federal government and theregions that significantly empowered it at the latter’s expense is no longertenable. Regions flexed their muscles, for example flouting federal orders toarrest suspects of criminal acts and building paramilitary forces without officialfederal consent in some regions, such as Tigray and Amhara.Third, the image security forces have built over the years as agents of staterepression has left many of their personnel demotivated to take action againstviolations of the law.20Finally, the new government has yet to draw a clear line between enforcinglaw and order, and sliding back into the authoritarianism of the past. Thisissue may not, strictly speaking, indicate fragility as it could be an outcomeof a deliberate decision by the government not to relapse to the authoritarianmethod of containing violence used in the past.Rising nationalist movements weakened statestructures, triggering a split in the ruling party andcomplicating the enforcement of law and orderThe new leadership in Ethiopia, as a senior government advisor toldthis researcher, wants to radically shift the official thinking around peaceenforcement. This entails opting to de-emphasise repressive measures infavour of softer approaches to peacebuilding such as reconciliation andnational dialogue.21 This shift has indeed helped bring about a general climateof freedom from the state, and has also contributed to the diminishing of antiregime struggles. However, it has also brought about a popular perception ofstate weakness and/or reluctance to uphold law and order.These problems have left the state fragile, or perceived as such. The inabilityof the state to keep the peace adds to the frequency of conflict in the country.The ruling partyThe EPRDF became a divided house at the height of the protests. Thealliance between the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) andAT THE HEIGHT OF THEPROTESTS, EPRDFBECAME A DIVIDED HOUSEEAST AFRICA REPORT 28 NOVEMBER 20195
the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO)left the TPLF off-guard.The appearance of the OPDO as the leading forceguiding the political liberalisation further alienatedthe TPLF. It was practically relegated to merelyadministering Tigray.As time went by, the Oromo and Amhara partiesalso lost the warmth of their relationship. The ANDM(now the Amhara Democratic Party) turned out to berebranding itself, and flirted with Amhara nationalismmore than ever, while the OPDO (now the OromoDemocratic Party, or ODP) vacillated between Oromonationalism and pan-Ethiopian nationalism. Theysometimes entertained conflicting ideas on contentiouspolitical issues such as the status of Addis Ababa andthe importance of the federal system.22As important, most of the parties making up the EPRDFhave suffered from internal incoherence, making interparty negotiations even harder. The ADP, ODP andSouthern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement(SEPDM) do not speak with one voice internally.The ADP echoes diverse voices and interests onquestions of ideology (strong versus moderate Amharanationalism) and methodology (militancy versus politicalnegotiations).23 Internally the SEPDM is in even worsecondition. Increasing demands for more autonomyamong the different constituent units of the SouthernNations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region have pulledparty members in different directions.24The internal fracture of the EPRDFis a major roadblock to enforcinglaw and orderAlthough in better shape, the ODP too is not unifiedon many critical issues. With divided loyalties (toprotest networks or to the regional administration)and contrasting visions (Oromo nationalism versus thepan-Ethiopian rhetoric espoused by the prime minister),members ‘do not look like they belong to one party’.25The internal fracture of the EPRDF is a major roadblockto enforcing law and order in the country in at least twoways. First, it has become increasingly difficult for the6WHAT IS DRIVING ETHIOPIA’S ETHNIC CONFLICTS?Figure 1: Interaction between nationalism andinstitutions producing ethnic violencein EthiopiaPolitical gilityViolencefront to chart a general vision, programme and policyfor securing peace.With deep divisions rooted in problem analysis andmodality of enforcing law and order, based in turn onideological divergence and catering for contrastingconstituencies, a unified roadmap has remained achimera. As one senior intelligence officer believes, theproblem with the EPRDF is not just that it entertainsdifferent views, but that it has not yet agreed on theneed and meaning of transition itself.26Elements within the TPLF, for instance, don’t want tosee a transition that, according to them, begins fromthe assumption that the recent past was a wastedtime in recent Ethiopian history. They also don’thave much appetite for the new balance of powerbetween the sister organisations.Some also don’t find it palatable that the transitionflourishes at the expense of their stalwart memberswho now have warrants for their arrest, or are incustody for alleged past crimes.The second challenge is worse than the first. It isreported that some members of the front have actuallyturned on the ODP and the federal government thatit now leads, in an attempt to destabilise it or thetransition it is purportedly managing. In this sense,the problem within the EPRDF is not justdisagreement, but active infighting among groups tosecure specific interests.27
Samples of conflictIn Ethiopia today, contending nationalisms exist in theface of institutional fragility and incoherence. The outcomeis the proliferation of violent conflicts, with many examplesacross the country.The conflict that involved the Qemant in the AmharaRegional State is a result of the long-running quest forrecognition and autonomy in the context of growingAmhara nationalism and a reoriented Amhara regionalautonomy. It is compounded by internal divisions withinthe EPRDF.The Qemant quest for autonomy has met with hurdlesfrom the regional government since 2007, and thecontentions sometimes resulted in violence. With thedawn of a new modus operandi in Ethiopia in 2018,ascendant Amhara nationalism envisioning a more unifiedAmhara identity saw the Qemant self-assertion as a plotto divide and weaken it.Both the security branch of the Amhara region and theleaders of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), anewly established nationalist organisation, saw increasingQemant agitation as a form of proxy war waged by theTPLF against the Amhara.28Qemant activists over time escalated their demands formore kebeles to form a special woreda, and repeatedlyconfirmed, at times through protests, that they were notwilling to accept anything less.29 The stiff confrontationtook a violent turn some months after Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali’srise to power.A series of clashes between Qemant activists and regionalsecurity forces led to the killing and jailing of hundreds ofpeople and destruction of property, including the burningof houses. Thousands were displaced.The conflict in the Oromo Special Zone of the Amharakillil is also an outcome of conflicting Oromo andAmhara nationalisms in changing federal killil (i.e.inter-governmental) dynamics, and the unrestrainedautonomisation of the Amhara regional administration.As a zone that enjoyed self-autonomy for over twodecades, its Oromo inhabitants were bent on viewingany attempt at encroaching on that privilege withconsternation. As Amhara mobilisation stepped up in thehands of the newly formed NAMA and the chief of thesecurity branch of the regional state, there were rumoursof plans to scrap that zonal status.30 In the meantime,a sense of Oromo victory and a jubilant Oromo crowdfollowing OLF’s return to the country
ethnic mobilisation. Finally, debates continued between ethnic and Ethiopian nationalists on such fundamental issues as the history, identity and future destiny of the country. Above the cacophony of ethnic and anti-regime agitations prevailed a semblance of order and overall stability.15 Violent inter-ethnic conflicts erupted occasionally over 27